DISCIPLES DIFFER. LEADERS AGREE.
The 55th Lesson
Go to the source, not the disciples.
Exclusive extract from “59 Lessons: Working with the World’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’ by Fergus Connolly, now available on Amazon
In a nondescript industrial park lies an unremarkable warehouse outside Columbus, Ohio. There is no sign, no name, nothing to signal what lies behind it. Morning after morning for decades, the strongest men in the world have walked through the doors to train at an elite, invitation-only facility. In a small torture chamber, they lift bars and weights that look nothing like the polished colored plates or machines you find in modern college or professional NFL team weight rooms. Under a true pioneer in the world of strength, they train to move rusted battered weights, setting world records by a half inch. 25lbs is always 25lbs – polishing it doesn’t make it lighter.
Louie Simmons owns and runs this gym. He has trained and prepared more record holders in powerlifting than anyone in the world. Louie developed his Westside Barbell method over many years of study, theory, and practice. An accomplished athlete in his own right, he’s one of only five lifters to record elite totals in five different weight classes.
He has written many books and openly shares his concepts, which many have copied. But there is only one Louie and only one Westside. Having studied the Westside Method for years and trained many athletes in the methodology, I thought I knew a lot about it. But when Louie invited me to come visit I also believed that many of his approaches would be in direct conflict with what I had learned from other coaches in different sports because powerlifting is so different than team settings. But sitting across from Louie in his office, discussing many of his principles with him, Tom Barry, and John Quint, I found more similarities than differences.
This is not the first time I’ve had such a realization, but it underlined again for me the need to go directly to the source, to tap leaders and ignore advocates or second- hand disciples. When you discuss techniques with Louie, you find that he is not only a gold mine of information and experience, but also a sophisticated thinker. Delve deeper into Louie’s mind and principles and you find out how solid his logic and understanding really are.
“DON’T WASTE TIME ON SECONDHAND INFORMATION.
GO TO THE SOURCE.”
Sitting with Louie was somewhat of a déjà vu experience. For years before I went to stay with Charlie Francis in Canada, I had read and re-read his coaching book Training for Speed and his fascinating autobiography Speed Trap many times. I’d also spent hours poring over his website forum, where people would debate aspects of his Vertical Integration system that encourages coaches to train each one of their athletes’ attributes to some degree at all times. As a result of all this reading and research, I had a pretty firm idea about what Charlie’s methods were. These informed the 20 questions I’d written down to ask him.
A few weeks later on the flight home, I pulled out the piece of paper to see if I had missed anything. Going slowly down the list of questions, I realized I hadn’t gotten an answer to a single one. It slowly dawned on me that the reason was simple: I wasn’t even asking the right questions.
This taught me a valuable lesson about the dangers of misinterpreting the written word or worse still, second- hand information. Yes, you can glean insights from what experts write or say in an interview, but you won’t get the full story unless you actually spend time with them and leave your preconceptions at the door.
Charlie wouldn’t allow me to remain stuck in lazy thinking or my off-the-mark deductions. He frequently answered a question with a question, forcing me to clarify and simplify my thinking as he had done over several decades to continually refine his coaching philosophy. He had a wonderful ability to look at problems in an unexpected way and by using a different lens to the one most coaches would, he’d usually devise a unique solution. I learned from him that to come to solid conclusions, you have to ask the right questions.
Chris Cooper played in the NFL for the Raiders and 49ers for almost 10 years. He was another rare student of the game who, like Pádraig Harrington, could explain the unique demands athletes deal with as both players and people. When Chris retired from pro football, he set up a facility in Dublin, California near the Raiders facility where he played for years to help the next generation of players. Chris used his firsthand NFL experience to provide targeted training, but, more importantly, offered tailored recovery modalities that he had battle-tested at the highest level.
He brought world-renowned Don Chu, one of the first trainers to introduce plyometrics to the West, to his facility. I had plenty of questions about plyometrics, as there were many misconceptions, but when I spent time with Don, I saw that his principles were in line with experts like Dan Pfaff, Stu McMillan, and Louie Simmons.
Just as I had some false assumptions about Don’s work, so too did I fundamentally misunderstand the tactical periodization approach of Vitor Frade until I went to Portugal to learn from him directly. I was introduced to him by José Tavares and as I don’t speak Portuguese and Vitor speaks very little English, José generously acted as our translator. As with Charlie Francis and Louie Simmons, I had just about everything about Vitor and his methods wrong. When I gave him examples of European teams I thought were using tactical periodization well, he chuck- led, as their methods weren’t at all in line with his philosophy. My time with Vitor convinced me again that to truly understand someone’s thinking, you need to go directly to the source whenever it’s possible. You can’t get the same level of comprehension from other people’s hand-me- down interpretations of their methodology.
The same lesson repeated itself with someone who wasn’t directly involved in sports. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford who wrote the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I met her when I was working at the 49ers and over dinner with her and her husband, I discussed the application of her ideas to my situation in particular. Carol was very gracious to give me some fascinating insights. A big takeaway was that after reading her book, I thought I knew exactly what a growth mindset was. But in sitting down with Carol, I saw that I only had a surface-level understanding. That evening she was able to share the subtleties of her approach and provide practical advice for creating a growth mindset at any organization without forcing it.
Carol was also interested in my perspective on that side of things, which gave me some validation. That’s another benefit of going directly to the source. Sometimes people don’t want to spend the time or money to do that, but then they miss out on the true value you get from picking great minds. It’s only in meeting them face to face that you can get a detailed interpretation of their ideas and learn how you might apply these to your profession. And though some experts are too busy to return your calls or meet with you, many others are far more welcoming than you might expect.
Are you making decisions based on firsthand knowledge or secondhand rumors?
It’s not always easy and grasping complex principles can be difficult. It takes time to study and understand how things work, but it requires insight and experience to find the right principles and then align them with your beliefs.
Gleaning from books or papers is one thing, but nothing beats going directly to the source. Don’t focus excessively on the methods without due recognition of what’s underpinning them.
Extract from “59 Lessons: Working with the World’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’ by Fergus Connolly, now available on Amazon